x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The kings of bling

With ornately jewelled headgear, lavishly adorned elephants and pearl-encrusted carpets, India's maharajas made an art of opulence.

Talk about conspicuous consumption. The maharajas of India flaunted their wealth with an abandon that would make Roman Abramovich gasp. One had a banqueting table so vast he installed a diamond-studded train to carry the port and cigars to diners. Another commissioned a silver encrusted bed with four life-size bronze nudes at each corner. They were powered by complicated mechanics which enabled the nymphs to not only fan the bed's incumbents but wink at them at the same time.

The extravagance of these Indian princes is displayed in all its bejewelled prodigality in Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. But the show is not just a display of the treasures from Imperial India. It also captures the ambiguity of the maharajas' eminence, from the period of their greatness in the early 18th century to the end of the British Empire in 1947. Their displays of wealth were an attempt to cement their positions as "kings above kings". Their patronage of the arts resulted in fabulous commissions designed to enhance their status as religious, military and political leaders who were nonetheless forced to defer, first to their imperial masters and then to the democratic forces that were unleashed in India with Independence in 1947 and then with the hostile legislation against their hereditary power imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1971.

The exhibition's curator, Anna Jackson, says: "The maharajas could not be kings because there already was a monarch in the shape of Queen Victoria, therefore they had to settle to be princes. Although only three-fifths of India was ruled by the British, they did like their maharaja's to appear regal and powerful over their own people, but second in rank to the British." Two pictures show the subtle way the British took control. The first from 1826 is a depiction of the court of the Rajputs, who had been rulers for eight centuries. As custom dictated the maharaja held centre stage and the British were forced to sit on the floor. Four years later, in another picture, we see the British sharing the dais and seated, not on the floor, but on chairs.

But in both pictures, the wealth of the maharajas is apparent from the number of attendants and the magnificence of the palaces. Few enjoyed this fantastic flummery more than Khanderao Gaekwad, the Maharaja of Baroda from 1828 to 1870, who in 1865 commissioned what is now known as The Pearl Carpet of Baroda. It was described by The New York Times in 1906 as "the most costly piece of jewellery in the world. In dazzling magnificence, it never has been, nor is ever likely to be, excelled".

This magical carpet consisted of four rectangular pieces and one circular canopy - which features in the exhibition - with more than one million pearls exquisitely stitched with rubies, sapphires and diamonds totalling up to 400 carats on a base of silk and deer hide. Measuring 5ft 8in by 8ft 8in, it took five years to complete using the skills of hundreds of artisans. It cost six million rupees which today can be computed at an astounding $79 million (Dh290m). In March this year one of the rectangular sections was auctioned by Sotheby's in Qatar for a mere $5.5 million (Dh20m).

The carpet was kept as a state treasure in Baroda and seen for the last time by the public at the ceremonial gathering of the Delhi Durbar in 1903 when his successor Sayajirao Gaekwad lll, who ascended to the throne in 1875, allowed it to be displayed as a mark of respect for the British sovereign. It was a respect that faded as the mood for Indian independence from the British grew. Sayajirao Gaekwad III was a distant relative of the royal family who was found when he was 12 years old working as a cowherd. The British chose him to succeed to the throne and when the Prince of Wales met the boy in 1875 he described him as "a crystallised rainbow- weighted head, neck, chest and arms fingers ankles with such a sight of vast diamonds emeralds, rubies and pearls as would be the loot of many a small town".

The prince added: "The little gentleman has more at home." But the little gentleman grew into a radical thinker who did much to unsettle British rule. Anna Jackson says: "Baroda remodelled government, built hospitals and railways, allowed political organisation and permitted widows to remarry. "In 1906 he was the first Indian ruler to introduce compulsory free primary education in his state, which was far in advance of contemporary British India. He banned child marriage, permitted divorce and put an end to the discrimination against the untouchables.

"He was keen on the arts. He had his own collection of Lalique glass, collected Chinese and Japanese artefacts and collected reproductions of Renaissance art." Despite affectations such as carrying a Louis Vuitton leather suitcase with a silver tea set inside, he became so involved with Indian nationalism that he was spied on by the British. Nothing upset the British colonials more than an incident at the Delhi Durbar of 1911. A flickering black and white film of the event, which can be seen at the exhibition, shows the maharaja wearing a simple white outfit rather than the full regalia which the British liked the princes to sport and instead of bowing deeply to King George V and walking off the dais backwards he gave a perfunctory bow and strode away, his back turned.

He sold off the pearl carpet to a local jeweller in 1902 to boost an exchequer stretched by the need to pay for famine relief and, though no one is certain, rumour has it that it remained in India till the early 1940s when it disappeared, perhaps taken out of the country in 1943 as independence loomed by the wife of the then Maharaja, Pratap Singh Gaekwad who settled in Monte Carlo. The treasures of Baroda had been dissipated by his death in 1968 but the pearl carpet was thought to have been kept in a bank vault in Geneva before the reappearance of the section in Qatar.

There is something almost allegorical about the way the carpet traces the rise and fall of its owners. Created at the time of unbridled riches, sold to make ends meet in a changing political climate and hidden away by a family trying to hang on to its wealth. In the post-independence years the maharajas lost most, if not all, of their power. They were forced to renounce their thrones, titles and privileges, shut their palaces and forts and auction their heirlooms but the exhibition is about their past glories, about a world where real power was increasingly illusory and the displays of wealth a magnificent, but symbolic, substitute.

But what glories. The show opens with a life-size model of an elephant laden with a howdah of gilded silver, under trappings of velvet and gold and "necklaces" of silver entwined in cotton and feathers. Everywhere there is excess; turbans ornamented with gold; robes in woven silk with gold thread; pendants, bracelets and necklaces glittering with rubies, diamonds and pearls, sapphires and silver; ceremonial swords designed more for show than fighting; even the dumb bells for the keep-fit ladies of court were picked out in ivory

As the inevitability of independence drew nearer, the maharajas did little to stint their extravagance. They would send chests of jewels to Cartier in Paris to be worked into adornments such as the Maharaja of Patiala's necklace which was completed in 1928 with 2,930 diamonds and totalled almost 1,000 carats. The Maharani Bhupal Singh of Mewar ordered a 1927 Rolls-Royce weighing 2,500kg - a mighty beast, almost as big as the elephant, which is still being driven by his successor - and others commissioned portraits by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, and had saris designed in Paris.

Today the royal titles such as the Maharajas of Jodhpur and Rampur have disappeared and their descendants have become politicians, hoteliers and entrepreneurs. One - Tikka Singh of the house of Kapurthula - is an adviser to the luxury group LVMH, which includes the diamond experts de Beers and Louis Vuitton. Arvind Singh Mewar still lives in the family palace of Udaipur and runs a chain of hotels.

Gaekwad lll's successor, Ranjit Singh, has his home in Laxmi Vilas Palace, once claimed to be the biggest private dwelling built in the 19th century and four times the size of Buckingham Palace. An extravagant building - what else - built in 1890 with Italian mosaic floors and walls, it still contains a remarkable collection of old armoury and sculptures in bronze, marble and terracotta. A distinguished figure in his sixties, Ranjit Singh recently told The Hindu newspaper: "Our entire property was taxed after independence but we are trying to make it lucrative by renting it out."

One of his palaces, the Shiv Nivas is a venue for lavish weddings while the Pratap Vilas, an extraordinary mix of Edwardian and Baroque architecture, houses the Railway Staff College. "We are not into hotels, not yet," he says. "Though our son has just started building a golf course." Like his great grandfather, Ranjit Singh is passionate about the arts. "I hold art exhibitions and teach painting at the Baroda University," he says. "I am now doing my PhD on Indian headgear."

Presumably he won't be creating one with quite as many diamonds as his ancestor's magic carpet. Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts will be open to the public at London's Victoria and Albert Museum until January 17, 2010. www.vam.ac.uk